Coronavirus Diary (49): Janitors and EMTs

I started my COVID-19 Narrative Project in part to capture the first-personal sense of what it was like to live through the COVID-19 crisis, and in part because I simply enjoy reading stories of this sort. Every now and then, I encounter submissions I wish I’d gotten. Here are two.

Here’s a story in the New York Post about a hospital janitor, Jhonelly Gil, from Bellevue Hospital in New York. It hit a few personal chords for me: my wife used to work at Bellevue in the 2000s, and I spent a summer working as a hospital janitor in the early 1990s at Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey. I loved the job for as long as I did it, but found it hard to imagine doing it for years on end. I remember thinking the following thought as I did it, but being too embarrassed to tell anyone about it–a symptom of an internalized classism, I suppose.

“Being helpful is my joy in this situation,” said Gil. “I’m happy to be cleaning those rooms and keeping the area clean to help others overcome this situation and be part of this hospital in this critical time.”

Not that I was at Overlook at any particularly “critical time.” In any case, I’m glad Gil had the courage to come out and say what I lacked the courage to say. But read the whole thing.

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Here’s a story in NJ.com about an EMT, Robert Weber, from Middletown First Aid and Rescue Squad in Middletown, New Jersey. Weber, a volunteer with the squad, died of complications from COVID-19 at the age of 44. The personal chord here for me is the road not taken:

One of his five siblings recorded the caravan of emergency vehicles that came a day later to salute her brother. Choked up from watching the memorial drive-by, Jennifer Weber could only shake her head at the irony.

“Robert was running after firetrucks and ambulances since he was 5 years old,” she said. “He’d be chasing after their sirens if he was here.”

I grew up across the street from a fire station (“West Orange Fire Station No. #3”), and did my share of firetruck-chasing, as well as idle, bemusedly-tolerated hanging-out at the station. My parents worked on ambulances, as do many of my students at Felician, but I never have. “There but for the grace of God go I” is the phrase we use when people suffer undeserved misfortune. We need a phrase for the undeserved misfortune someone suffers through the choice to risk his life incurring it.

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